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Electrolytes – Balance is Key – Part 1

One of the most asked questions I am posed with is what supplement(s) would I want to take with me on a desert island and my answer always remains the same, electrolytes. There are others I would bring along depending on how many things I could take like Vitamin C, trace minerals and definitely B-Complex vitamins (wouldn’t want pellagra, beriberi or anemia). Electrolytes though would always be number one.

A better question would be, ‘If you were dropped into a western, developed country, which supplement would you most want to make sure you have available?’ My answer would definitely be electrolytes with a bullet. The balance between two components of electrolytes, sodium and potassium, are as messed up in the Western diet as could be imagined.

Before we go much further, we need to define what electrolytes are. The standard definition is ‘any fluid that conducts, or has the ability to conduct electricity.’ Distilled water does not conduct electricity so would not be considered an electrolyte. Most soft drinks like Cola’s can be called an electrolyte but they are very poor conductors. So what about those sports drinks that are mass marketed? They probably are but they have lots of things in them like sugar and food colorings that are not helpful and for many people, detrimental. Your best choice for good electrolytes contain a balance of salts without sugars, additives or colorings.

Going back to the question of electrolytes and the Western diet, why you might ask, do I feel so strongly about its need? According to research, the average human needs 4,700 milligrams of potassium each day and 2,300 milligrams of sodium. In the typical Western diet, we get about 3,400 milligrams of sodium, slightly above recommendations, but the real kicker is that we only get about 2,400 milligrams of potassium, almost half of what we should be getting.

Today’s health monitors tell us that we need to reduce sodium intake because of its implication in coronary heart disease and in particular, high blood pressure (hypertension). Problem is, most studies done to measure the benefits of sodium reduction come up way short. Frankly, they tell us that reducing sodium intake really doesn’t do anything beneficial unless the amounts ingested are far greater than the average person takes in. Medicine seems to be stumped which astonishes me as they are missing the other side of the equation, potassium deficiency.

The DASH study is supposedly the be all reason why reducing sodium works so well but when you look at the diet, it dramatically increased potassium and magnesium, two of the minerals most deficient in the Western diet. While sodium reduction was the focus, I propose that it was the improved diets (vegetables, legumes and fruits) that helped the most as well of increasing the minerals we needed.

Every food we eat contains potassium so our bodies do not store this essential mineral very well. We don’t need to. Sodium on the other hand, is found in far fewer foods so we have evolved to retain this mineral. For millenium, salt, which is known as sodium chloride or NaCl, was an expensive commodity and not available to everyone. Today, it is loaded into almost every processed food and is a cheap condiment. Because of the West’s reliance on fast food for its convenience and easy availability, we are getting all the sodium we need. Potassium? Not so much.

Fruits, legumes and vegetables are abundant in potassium but that is what we tend to leave out of our diets. And we don’t do this for a few days a week, we do this year in and year out. Continuing to be deficient in potassium should be one of the main concerns in today’s Western diet but unfortunately it isn’t.

Next time, I will continue showing how important electrolyte balance is and what systems within the human body are most affected by imbalances.

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Depression – A Serious Worldwide Issue

Depression is a silent epidemic striking millions of people worldwide. I know about this issue personally as I suffered from depression when I was in my twenties. It wasn’t until I met my mentor John Kitkoski that I found out why I was suffering from depression and what I needed to do to get over it.

What compounded my problem was my exercise induced anorexia which I have blogged about earlier. That and the nutrition worlds mindset that fat and protein were bad and complex carbohydrates were good. The days of carbohydrate loading was a disaster for many of us. What we know today is that our old concepts were way off track and was the fore bearer of an age of obesity, chronic disease and yes, depression.

The reason I decided to blog about the topic of depression should be obvious after the horrific mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. People all over the world were shocked and likely depressed because of the tragedy. Many will need counseling and many more will need much more help than you can imagine. That is why I want to talk about this and give some simple advice. Understand that my blog cannot answer all the issues surrounding depression, just a few basic tips. Also, depression is a major problem during the holidays especially if we are away from our loved ones.

First off, potassium is a critical electrolyte/mineral that needs constant replenishing to keep the nervous system and brain healthy. It is something that can be easily measured in a blood test, typically found in a standard chemistry screen. The typical reference range is 3.5 to 5.5 mEq/L but I get concerned with any reading below 4.0. Raising potassium levels with foods like avocados and bananas as well as potassium rich electrolytes are very helpful. But there is a caveat and that is you can overdose potassium and cause a heart arrhythmia if you don’t balance it with enough sodium and magnesium.

The second tip to remember is the use of amino acids and fatty acids in depression. When I was a runner back in the 1970’s and 80’s, protein and fat were bad and complex carbohydrates like whole wheat were good. The problem is, amino acids and fats are critical to keeping mood up and balanced. Amino acids have been used by functional doctors for years in treating depression. Tryptophan which is a precursor to serotonin and tyrosine which is precursor to norepinephrine are key amino acids but not the only ones. A balance is necessary to achieve success.

As for fats, the brain is built with fats and keeping them out of your diet is a sure way to cause mental issues. Cholesterol, a fat that circulates within all of us has long been vilified as being somehow bad for you. Wrong. According to an editorial in Circulation magazine in September of 1999 that low cholesterol, under 160 (4.1 in countries other than the U.S)  increases the risk of depression, suicide, accidents and some forms of cancer. Now, I’m not advocating loading up on lard (which really isn’t bad for you), but getting a good amount of Omega 3, 6, 9 fatty acids from fish and meats is a good idea for optimal brain health.

Another tip concerning fats is how helpful Omega 3 fatty acids are in treating depression. I typically recommend 3-5 grams per day with 250 milligrams of l-carnitine for each gram of fish or flax oil.

Above all, in order to have the best outcome for people with depression is to maximize their nutritional intake by eating the cleanest foods (organic when possible) and to take supplements to fill in deficiencies and not to overcome bad habits.

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Anorexia – Things to Think About

Anorexia is a serious disorder that needs to be dealt with early on if possible and very carefully if it is a long-term issue. How a person becomes an anorexic is multi-faceted. Sometimes it is due to the pressure society places on women through the unreal skinny models who don the covers of fashion magazines or the rail thin actresses who look like they’ve missed every other meal. Other reasons include just plain malnutrition or over exercise without enough caloric intake. That last one is an issue I had to deal with personally back in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s.

When I ran competitively, I assummed that being thin was the way to get faster. It was also the era of carbohydrate loading and an aversion to protein. The outcome? When I finished the 1979 NYC Marathon, with a broken knee cap, I weighed 129 pounds. Now if I was 5’2″, that might have been acceptable except I am 6 feet tall. I was anorexic but I didn’t know it.

As I look back on my life at that time and saw pictures of myself I was stunned that I didn’t realize how skinny I was. Remembering what my self image was I knew that I was thin, but not that bad. Years later it hit me, anorexics don’t see themselves as being that thin either and the reason may be a lack of potassium. Now, you must be thinking, ‘wow what a stretch’ to claim that potassium is a possible cause of an inability to properly view ones own body shape, but follow me on this line of thinking.

Two main electrolytes are key to the proper functioning of our nervous system and the way we perceive ourselves, sodium and potassium. Humans are quite good at retaining sodium as it wasn’t in many of the foods our ancestors ate and we evolved to retain sodium. That is why salt became such an important commodity in the past. We don’t retain potassium very well as it is in all the foods we eat and therein lies the problem. Someone with anorexia does not eat enough so they do not get an adequate amount of potassium to allow their nervous systems to operate properly. Here is a study that showed a decrease in potassium in people with anorexia.

Anorexia patients muscles become taught as potassium is necessary for the relaxation of tissue. If you remember back to junior high school and the frog’s leg experiment when you put sodium on the leg, it contracts, if you put potassium on it, it relaxes. But how do you get potassium into someone with anorexia who does not want to eat? One way is to get them to drink no calorie electrolytes. Another is to stimulate their appetite using zinc. A study on zinc supplementation from the journal Eating and Weight Disorders showed that adding zinc to people with anorexia can increase their BMI dramatically. Unfortunately, as stated in the study, it is infrequently used. It should be a standard of care.

Depression is another serious issue that comes with anorexia and something that needs attention as well. Potassium levels below 4.0 mEq/L (found on a standard blood chemistry) always makes me ask whether a person is suffering from depression. So where can we find no calorie electrolytes as most of the ones on the market are filled with sugar or other sweeteners? Here are two sources, one from Charles Poliquin and one from my company, Knowledge Through Solutions. Either one will help add needed potassium to someone with anorexia but should not be considered a cure by any stretch.

Anorexia is a very complex disorder which needs a team to help the individual recover including psychological support. Family and close friends need to support the anorexic as well. Just know that there are ways to help recover people with anorexia.

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